Stephen Hawking is perhaps the most famous living scientist of our time. His prestige is probably comparable only to that of Einstein in the first half of the twentieth century. Hawking owes much of his renowned name and fame to his theoretically groundbreaking contributions to the origin of the universe and the physical laws in effect in those explosively expanding beginnings.
The fact that, faced with a crippling genetic condition, he always remained in good spirits and showed the world an admirable perseverance, has added to his reputation and popularity. Despite his progressive muscle disease, he has led a full and rich life for decades.
A Brief History of Time, one of his most acclaimed and most widely read books, quickly became a worldwide bestseller after being published, selling over ten million copies. Later on, various cosmological-educational documentary series were published by (and by and about) him. Hawking is widely respected not only for his intellectual merits, but also for his rare determination: the harsh circumstances have never brought him down in heart, soul, or spirit. His magnetic personality is made up of three equal parts fragility, heroism and genius.
Hawking, and his amazing ingenuity
He was born on January 8, 1942, in London – exactly 300 years after Galileo’s death. A curious coincidence that Hawking himself regularly jokes about. According to his youngest brother Edward, she grew up in an eccentric family. Their father spent most of his time as a doctor in Africa, where he devoted himself to field medical research.
Hawking knew very early on—as a young teenager, of course—that he wanted to study mathematics and physics. He was admitted to Oxford at the age of 17, where he was much loved by fellow students because of his exceptional acumen. Yet he was not known for being a bookworm or a student – quite the contrary. He was mainly occupied with playing bridge, and with rowing competitions from a team of friends.
After a number of years in which he was neither very focused on his academic achievements nor interested in the field above average, his grades climbed towards the outside category. For his post-doctoral period he chose monumental Cambridge, where the admissions committee used very high averages. During the interview, he showed his sincerity by saying: “If my grades are excellent, I’ll go to Cambridge. If they’re just ‘good enough’, I’ll stay in Oxford. I trust you will give me excellent grades.” And that’s exactly how it went.
His career as a scientist began more than 25 years ago, and in that capacity probably no one has contributed more to our understanding of the universe than he has. Hawking’s theoretical contributions to black holes, dark matter and his advanced knowledge and hypotheses about the origin and nature of the cosmos are avant-garde, even revolutionary.
Literally and figuratively the textbook example
At 20, Hawking was diagnosed with the degenerative neuromuscular disease ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), and since then he has spent most of his life in a wheelchair. Professionally, his academic development has not been limited by this increasing physical decline. In a way, his illness has even freed him from daily routines and the more material worries, so that he could – and can – devote all his time and attention to his scientific research.
Hawking does not like to talk about his physical disabilities, and also avoids his private life as a topic of conversation. Above all, he hopes to be remembered as a gifted scientist, as a writer, and as an inspired educator who has made astronomy (more) accessible to interested laymen. And besides that, just like any other person, with dreams, impulses, desires and ambitions.
When Hawking was originally told that he had ALS, the doctors also told him that the disease usually affects mainly the elderly. That was of little consolation, of course, for he was only twenty years old himself. Anyway, the condition worsened at breakneck speed, and his disastrous life forecast was twenty-four months at the most. After that sledgehammer blow, he sank into a deep depression, listening to Wagner for hours every day.
Against initial expectations, Hawking’s condition stabilized after about two years, and he decided to marry Jane Wilde, who would eventually bear him three children. Hawking himself resumed his investigation, thus triumphing—mentally and emotionally—over his devastating and irreversible physical breakdown. In 1969 he finally ended up in a wheelchair, and from that moment on he was completely dependent on third parties, and had to have a carer available full-time.
A man who conquers himself
In 1979 he was elected to the ‘Lucasian Chair of Mathematics’ at Cambridge University – the same position held by Isaac Newton, in his own time. In 1985, during an emergency, he was forced to undergo a tracheotomy – a cut in the throat of the windpipe – and lost his ability to speak for good. His only remaining means of communication is a so-called voice synthesizer installed in his wheelchair computer interface, which he controls with just one finger.
Hawking also has a good sense of humor, according to an anecdote he told a journalist. During a cosmology conference at the Vatican, the speakers had a brief audience with the Pope, who expresses his interest in the big bang theory and the evolution of the universe. Because that too was – in his view – God’s hand and creation.
Hawking emphasizes how relieved he was that the Pope had failed to understand his lecture on the “possibility that the time-space continuum was finite, yet at the same time had no (observable) limits.” The underlying message was clear that the universe had no beginning, one was created, and indeed: never not existed. He said, with a quip: ” I am glad Reverend Pope missed my implied conclusion, for I sincerely hope to be spared Galileo Galilei’s fate. “
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